Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Week


I thought that Mental Health Awareness Week received fantastic coverage across broadcast, print and social media this past few days. Is this topic finally being taken seriously?

The main stat that caught my eye was:

1 in 4 in the UK has or will have a mental health issue in their lifetime

Just think about that. That is alarming.

Much coverage has referenced how people are treated at work. A recent survey of the Royal College of Surgeons revealed that more than 54% were planning to retire early or change profession because of the stress and mental health challenges it was causing. This isn’t just a ‘millennials’ or ‘social media’ problem.

Many company leaders are rightly addressing this. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, has more than $6 trillion dollars in assets under his watch. He recently emphasised the importance of companies serving a social purpose as well as a financial one. Fink attracted a fair degree of opprobrium from many quarters and was accused of practising ‘corporate socialism’ i.e. allowing his own politics to blind him to what was best for his company and his investors. Interestingly, he also received a great deal of support, with many senior figures acknowledging that Fink’s view was actually a recognition of a growing body of evidence that long term economic success was inextricably linked to the way a company addressed social issues like employee wellbeing.

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Reflecting on the coverage of Mental Health Awareness Week, I have 3 thoughts:

  1. CEOs are rarely judged on long-term economic success: their average tenure is around 5 years and they judged on quick ‘turnarounds’ or fast ‘cost-savings’ or efficient ‘product innovation’  

  2. Mental health issues and wellbeing are still a taboo subject in numbers-obsessed board rooms

  3. Where they are discussed, mental health issues are so often ‘bundled into’ wellbeing, which is causing problems

Within the confines of this post, I can address only the 3rd point.

Organisations are absolutely responsible for their employees’ wellbeing. Wellbeing initiatives may be anything from providing breakfast at work, gym memberships and health insurance to more regular 1-2-1s with managers and coaches. A culture of wellbeing will help to reduce stress and improve mental health. However, most serious mental health cases - such as sustained anxiety or depression -  originate either in private lives or through a physiological disposition. A culture of wellbeing should allow the identification of mental health issues more readily, but it is not the role of line managers and or even HR teams manage these directly. It is their role to ensure those affected are referred to and treated by professional psychologists or counsellors, and to ensure work commitments are never a barrier to effective management of a condition that is not going to be solved quickly, if ever – contrary to the ‘instant results’ imperatives of many businesses.

In my work with RiddleBox, we speak regularly to HR directors. They all acknowledge that wellbeing is important but when I ask them how they measure it they rarely have a convincing answer. How can we manage what we cannot measure? How can this be taken seriously in the board rooms as a driver of financial performance when there are such intangible correlations? How can more CEOs feel comfortable in managing their businesses using wellbeing metrics, not financial ones? Because only then will we see more economic success founded on employee wellbeing, which will help to tackle mental health issues properly. 

I’d be interested to have some answers to these questions.